Author: Ryan Strong
In 1977, to celebrate the college’s 90th anniversary, Occidental revived a tradition called O-Day with carnival games, an all-campus photograph and a cake large enough to feed the entire campus. In this celebrated history of the college, Andrew Rolle ’43 recounts that the next year, O-Day was designated as ‘Sun Day’ in recognition of solar energy potential. “A sunrise gathering on top of Mt. Fiji was followed by a jog for energetic early risers and then breakfast on the president’s lawn,” he writes.
Almost 35 years later, construction of a massive solar array project progresses daily on Mt. Fiji to harness the solar energy potential the college first recognized with its Sun Day event in 1978. And this weekend, Occidental will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a variety of themed activities and events for the Occidental community, including old-fashioned carnival games and a Ferris Wheel.
All great institutions thrive by treating important milestones as opportunities to reconnect with the past in a way that explains the present and informs decisions regarding the future. At Occidental, even the basic mechanics of celebrating this anniversary recall the college’s rich history, and this milestone presents a unique opportunity to contemplate and prepare for the institution’s future.
Professors and students have had a close relationship at Occidental from the college’s inception. A student diary from the 1890s quoted in Rolle’s book reads: “Hunted with Pres. McPherron. He held the gun, and I the horse. Result – one lark!” Another reads, “Chess with Professor Colberg. He beat.” The opening of a fully renovated and expanded Swan Hall this summer will add facilities aimed at better cultivating and recognizing the relationship between professor and student.
The college’s focus on world affairs, underscored by the upcoming multimillion dollar transformation of Johnson Hall into the Center for Global Affairs, can be traced back to World War I and the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. “In the national debate over the peace settlement, President Evans defended Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the League of Nations. Henceforth, courses and professors alike would reflect a growing interest in world culture,” Rolle describes.
A decade later, Senior Comprehensives (Comps) were first established because faculty were nervous that the financial hardships of the Great Depression would lessen the rigor of the college. During approximately that same time, Occidental’s grading philosophy developed.
“It was Percy Houston who introduced us to the grading system at the college,” Addid McMenamin ’40 said in “Occidental Fair,” a succinct history of Occidental. “According to him, to get an A, you have to have an inner gift. For a B, you need mechanic correctness and a sense of style. Anyone can earn a C. D is a grade we give when it should be an F, but we need you to keep coming back to pay tuition.”
An early precursor to the Core program appeared in 1947 with the introduction of a 24-unit, two-year course known as History of Civilization. First-years and sophomores gathered in Thorne Hall as one professor after another took the stage in subject areas from history and music to art and psychology. Described as the heart of the college’s academic program by Rolle, History of Civilization had been cherished by hundreds of alumni. The program ended in the late 1960s, but the college’s commitment to interdisciplinary study can still be found in the vast array of Core program requirements and the Cultural Studies Program for first-years. The first and third-year writing requirements added in 1974 to round out the curriculum’s breadth are still in effect.
Student Life at the college has proven to exemplify aspects of the past – many of the same questions that confront student leaders today have been debated and discussed throughout the college’s history.
Around 1925, fraternities and sororities-then a major hallmark of the college-navigated sensitive issues with the college’s administration. Fraternity members began inviting girls to the Friday dinner to replace absent members. This did not sit well with the Head of Residence and Social Activities because proper chaperones were not present.
“She brushed aside my assurance that there was no hanky panky involved and there was no harm done. She pointed out patiently that this was not the point, that there were many things that, no, are not harmful but which we still refrain from doing because they are frowned upon by society,” a student who met with the administrator on the issue recalled in Occidental Fair. “As you might expect, we solved the problem the easy way. Instead of inviting chaperones, we simply stopped inviting girls.”
While female students are more than welcome to visit fraternities now without college-approved chaperones, this back-and-forth between fraternities and sororities and the administration on a host of issues has continued throughout the college’s history.
As the Great Depression struck Occidental in the 1930s and contributions from alumni dwindled, all faculty took a 10 percent pay cut except for President Remsen Bird, who voluntarily took a 20 percent cut. Relative to comparable colleges, Occidental fared well. Other schools in California had to cut faculty and staff salaries as much as 35 percent.
One reason Occidental made it through the financial squeeze was revenue from its “hotel operations,” including boarding, feeding and catering for outside groups and hosting filming sessions. By 1940, students were voicing strong concern that the college was becoming too residential. Students protested a commission report that recommended reducing the role of fraternities in favor of on-campus housing.
To accommodate a growing student body, the institution undertook the construction of half a dozen new dormitories in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Bell-Young and Newcomb in 1956, Chilcott and Pauley in 1959 and Braun in 1962. In 1946, 31 percent of the student body lived on campus, according to Rolle. By 1962, that number rose to 80 percent. In 2010, it was 77 percent.
“There was increased attention toward improvement of opportunities for intellectual and personal growth in a residential environment. Occidental’s experience with symposia and discussions held in residence halls on a voluntary basis, without formal connection to the scheduled curriculum, was intended to merge both living and learning activities,” Rolle says.
t years, the college has transitioned into a three-year mandatory on-campus living requirement with very limited exceptions. In a recent letter, the college said the switch was consistent with its longstanding commitment to a residential campus while admitting that the requirement was partly due to budgetary constraints and the need to raise additional revenue from dorms and meal plans. The requirement is extremely unpopular amongst students, some of whom see an inherent contradiction between the college’s focus on being and working within Los Angeles and its insistence on confining students to the college’s dorms for more years than necessary. That debate is certainly not a new one and, judging by its longevity, may not end anytime soon.
One of the oddest fads in the college’s annals seized the college in the late 1930s. “In 1939, Don Carpenter, for a brief hour of glory, held a nationally-publicized record of having swallowed thirty-nine little fish. The college, furthermore, continued to hold the Pacific coast championship in this bizarre activity,” Rolle says.
The goldfish gulping phenomenon passed away quickly, but another Occidental eccentricity stuck around for more than half a century. From 1887 until the 1950s, first-years were required to wear beanie caps, referred to as “drinks,” for the first few weeks of their Occidental careers. Although this and other mild forms of first-year hazing have been eliminated, to this day it is still easy to distinguish them from everyone else during the first few weeks of each year; they may not wear beanie caps, but many do wear conspicuous Occidental lanyards that give away their first-year status.
Pranks also played a sizable role in student life, and the occupants of Stewart-Cleland Hall (“Stewie”) always seemed to be involved. In the 1960s, the college moved its flagpole from Swan Hall to the more central location where it currently resides at the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Building. Workers transported the new flagpole in pieces and welded it together but then called it a day, leaving the finished flagpole laying on the ground overnight.
“The boys of Stewie carried the flagpole up the hill and placed it into the second-floor window of Stewart-Cleland, where it remained until the maid discovered it the next morning,” student Walter Scott ’64 recalled in Occidental Fair.
Student activism is not a new development for the college, which is rated as one of the most activist in the country by at least one publication. In 1969, a dedication ceremony for the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Building was met by student protesters holding signs like “This building offends me.” The Black Student Caucus then personally delivered a list of demands to President Gilman, including more recruitment of African-American students, more Black History courses and divestment of the endowment from apartheid South Africa, according to Rolle.
The student protests closely resemble last year’s protest by the Coalition, a multi-ethnic group that submitted a list of demands to President Veitch on similar issues.
The fight over off-campus issues such as minority rights, women’s rights and the Vietnam War would continue at Occidental through the late 1960s and 1970s. In fact, in 1969 some students participated in a hunger strike to protest military oppression. In uncanny similarity with the Occupy movement, many of these students camped out in the middle of the Quad as part of their protest, according to Rolle’s account.
In the early 1980s, another on-campus protest over South Africa was the setting for one of President Barack Obama’s earliest forays into public speaking. In his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama describes mounting a stage amid “No Profit from Apartheid!” signs to deliver a brief plea for the college to shed its South African investments. “I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause,” he writes. “I had so much left to say.”
By the 1990s, students began succeeding many times over in influencing administration policy. In 1990 alone, students fought hard for a new Women’s Center, improved sexual assault policy and a clearer hate crime policy.
Even the college’s current policy on cars-offering free parking to all students-can be traced back to its past. Rolle writes that in the early 1990s, “car owners helped to establish a college race track, and the campus soon resounded to the roar of Fords, Dodges and Stutz Bearcats speeding smokily over its dusty peripheral roads. Despite the efforts of local police to halt these assaults upon the quiet of Eagle Rock, the members of Oxy’s Auto club, the first in Southern California, filled the air with fumes as they used College Hill for auto climbing contests.” Students’ access to cars plays into access to Los Angeles.
In the 1890s, the young college hit hard financial times due to the collapse of Southern California’s real estate bubble. Professors and administrators had to sacrifice huge chunks of their salaries to keep the young college afloat.
Financial insecurity did not stop the first students from graduating, including two women, Maude Bell and Martha Thompson. Four years later, Pedro Recio, the college’s first Latino student, graduated. Ki Rhee Lee, the first Asian graduate, graduated with the 1910 class. Since then Occidental’s commitment to providing access to education for students regardless of race, gender or income has ingrained itself in Occidental’s core mission. As of 2010, the college is 57 percent female, 14 percent Hispanic or Latino, 18 percent Asian and 6 percent black. By 1932, just more than a decade after the college’s relocation, half of its students received financial aid. Today, that figure is 78 percent.
The college weathered the financial storm at the turn of the century and soon moved from Boyle Heights and Highland Park to its present-day Eagle Rock campus in 1914. By the 1920s the college had grown and fundraised enough to embark on several capital projects under President Remsen Bird, including the Hillside Theatre (1925) and Mary Norton Clapp library (1924).
Remsen Bird came to be Occidental’s longest-serving president, holding the position fr
om 1921 to 1946. He was also a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and in December 1941, as President Roosevelt delivered his war message to the nation following Pearl Harbor, the First Lady was staying at Occidental College. The college became deeply involved in World War II, a time when budgets were extremely tight and faculty had to make more sacrifices as one-third of the student body disappeared, according to Rolle.
Following the war, flat land ran short and the college began a massive effort to flatten ground above Bell-Young Hall. About 40 feet of hillside was shaved off of the hill that Stewart-Cleland Hall rests on now, making the walk for first-year students more bearable.
When Arthur G. Coons took over as president in 1946, the college saw a massive rise in prestige. Coons’ single largest accomplishment took place off campus when he successfully chaired a statewide team that developed a higher education master plan in the state. The team’s end product led to a wholesale reorganization of the state system and a billion dollars of funding for state institutions between 1960 and 1970, while also securing the position of private schools in the region to continue growing. The plan played a critical role in California’s higher education system – widely considered the best in the United States.
During the 1970s, the college ballooned in population and faculty requested the college reduce its size to continue its rigorous, traditional liberal arts education. With tight budgets, the college waited. Today, faculty has a similar message for the administration – and the administration has, again, prioritized budget issues over overpopulation woes.
But the 1980s saw significant growth of the endowment along with the beginning of gradual liberalization. Despite setbacks, such as rising crime in Eagle Rock, by 1990 – U.S. News and World Report listed the college as one of the top 25 liberal arts colleges in the country for the first time, behind only two West Coast colleges: Pomona and Claremont McKenna. Getting back to a top 25 liberal arts spot is a goal the college would certainly like to achieve.
Just as former President Arthur G. Coons did before the 75th anniversary in 1962, President Jonathan Veitch recently organized a multitude of task forces coordinated by a central steering committee to conduct a self-study and develop a strategic plan that will serve as a road map for the college’s future.
That strategic plan is nearing completion, with a draft currently under revision. The draft includes a vision statement, written primarily by President Veitch, that starts out by setting a goal for the college being “recognized as the most distinctive urban liberal arts college in the country.” It ends by envisioning Occidental College as “a place where access and excellence are deeply intertwined.”
The drafted strategic plan outlines almost 50 initiatives under six broad topics: Liberal Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, Global Culture, Inclusive Excellence, Connected Community and Living and Learning. One of the college’s central goals is to reconnect with alumni from all generations, to both support them and to increase opportunities for current students through alumni networks.
On the eve of the 125th anniversary, the college has been working feverishly to earn the financial resources necessary to realize its vision for the future. As of February, the college’s endowment stands at $340 million, according to Vice President of Finance and Planning Amos Himmelstein. But that amount does not approach other top liberal arts colleges like Pomona, which has an endowment around $1.5 billion.
“I would say we really need to raise the college’s endowments,” Himmelstein said. President Veitch made a similar statement in the fall, addressing Occidental’s No. 182 rank on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2010 financial year endowment rankings.
“We’re celebrating the 125th anniversary of the college. You don’t get there by not taking the long view,” Himmelstein said.
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